August 16, 2012
CSR: Substantive versus Symbolic
Posted by Matt Bodie

Much of this debate over the role of CSR is based on definitional boundaries, as Jeff Lipshaw has vividly pointed out.  And I agree with his assessment that there is no way out -- corporations do not exist in separate "economic" spheres where ideology and politics are absent.  All actions have ideological consequences, and we cannot remove our political selves from the market in order to carry out the work of our economic selves.  At the same time, I think the point of Will Wilkinson's post is to ask whether we want to amp up the politicization of corporations, particularly on issues not directly relevant to the business at hand.  That is a thornier issue.

But there's a big distinction to be made first.  Ideological issues that are directly related to the firm's business need more airplay, not less.  And I think traditional CSR has focused on those issues.  The campaign against the use of sweatshops in making college apparel, for example, and the efforts to promote greater sustainability in farming and manufacturing strike directly at the heart of certain industries and their methods of production.  Here CSR is simply pointing out the ideological ramifications of the businesses themselves, and asking for reforms of certain practices.  Those who claim to take "ideology" out of these decisions by rejecting CSR are simply trying to change the subject.  It is pure ideology to say that a corporation has a duty to pollute as much as it can or pay its workers as little as possible in order to maximize profits.  Shunting off these decisions onto other fields of law--such as environmental or labor law--is a way of promoting one ideology over the other.  Those who buy sweatshirts or organic food, or use electricity from coal-fired plants, or partake in any of a myriad of consuming choices throughout any particular day, are morally on the hook for those practices.

On the other hand, I feel for those workers at Chick-fil-A who have found themselves in the crossfire over ideological stands that really have nothing to do with the core business.  From a HuffPost article:

One gay employee who works at Chick-fil-A headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, says he is getting it from both sides. On the one hand, there is the customer who came in and said he supported Dan Cathy and then "continues to say something truly homophobic, e.g. 'I'm so glad you don't support the queers, I can eat in peace,'" the employee, who is 23 and has worked for Chick-fil-A since he was 16, wrote in an email. On the other hand, he continued, "I was yelled at for being a god-loving, conservative, homophobic Christian while walking some food out to a guest in a mall dining room."

The employees of Chick-fil-A knew they were joining a fast-food company that had a Christian orientation.  And that orientation has some concrete ramifications for the core business -- the stores are closed on Sunday. But making and selling (delicious) chicken sandwiches does not really relate to gay marriage.  If Chick-fil-A decided not to hire LGBT employees, that would be a concrete personnel decision with business ramifications. But they haven't.  Instead, what we have are the words of a president/COO--words that have labeled Chick-fil-A as a pro-Christian, anti-gay restaurant.

So I suppose I agree with Willkinson that it would be a shame if a lot of companies decided to "brand" themselves with political or religious affiliations that have nothing really to do with their core business -- particularly if these affiliations are chosen by the CEO and/or majority shareholder.  That's what Dan Cathy seems to have done here: made a conscious decision to cast the company's lot with a particularly policy choice as a symbolic, hortatory matter.  But employees who make up the vast bulk of the company had no say on the decision.  Cathy is arguably parlaying Chick-fil-A and the brand loyalty it has developed into support for his unrelated political and religious views.  The company is privately owned by his family, so perhaps it's his to parlay.  But it sure seems unfair to the rest of the company, especially those employees who are gay and lesbian.

When you buy a Chick-fil-A sandwich, there are a number of political/ideological/policy ramifications: how the chicken was raised, how it was prepared, what packaging is used, even how the restaurants are built.  (The restaurant addresses the last two issues here.)  Your support or antipathy towards gay marriage is not inherently part of the equation.  Since Cathy made his company a symbolic player in the gay marriage debate, I cannot blame folks on both sides who will base their chicken-consuming decisions on that stand.  But CSR should be based on what the company actually does -- not the unrelated views of one of its owners or executives.

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